Sunday, 29 April 2007

An Arduous Quest Comes To A Dark, Bitter End

A few years ago I realized that I like dark chocolates more than any other kind. Since then I have been searching for the one perfect chocolate to rule over all others.

At first it was not a systematic search. I would just randomly pick up something from the supermarket and see if I liked it. Then, about six months ago, I became more methodical. The turning point was a conversation at a birthday party in which a friend was talking about chocolates with different proportions of cocoa. She explained that the chocolates with more cocoa were more bitter.

So the next chance I got I picked up a bar with 90% cocoa. I reasoned that if bitter is good then bitterer should be betterer. Alas, it was good but fell short of perfect. It was too ... full of cocoa; it didn't entirely seem like chocolate anymore. Surprised and disappointed, I thought perhaps some additional ingredients were needed. So I experimented with fruity chocolates such as rum & raisin, and orange. They were an improvement but still did not quite hit the mark. It was a grim time. I began to lose hope.

Then, almost by accident, I decided to try plain dark chocolate again, but now with less cocoa. I bought one with only 70% cocoa. And it was great! It had robust bitter overtones that were in almost perfect balance with its underlying chocolatey sweetness. The sun was shining again and my quest was nearing its successful conclusion.

And then I found what I had been searching for all this time: Lindt Excellence Madagascar. It's made from beans grown on that island. It's unmistakably dark, with just the right bitterness to send an instant tingle shooting up your tongue. And then it follows up with a mildly sweet aftertaste and just a hint of vanilla to relax your taste buds again. Quite simply it is pure joy made solid and wrapped in foil.

At last, my search is complete.

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Another Time, Another Place, And It Could Be Me

I live a fairly comfortable, secure life (as, I suspect, do most of my fellow blogospheroids). So I appreciate the occasional reminder that for many others life is harder. I got such a reminder today, courtesy my wife.

She had lunch with three people from Zimbabwe. Now, if you read the Economist, then you already have an inkling of what's coming up. This is a country where life expectancy has now diminished to 35 years. Where the economy shrank by half over the past ten years, even while the global economy grew by a third or more. Worst, as one of my wife's lunch companions confessed, this is a country whose people have learned to live with diminished dreams; all they really want now is to be allowed to return home safe.

The Economist is unabashed about it's right-wing politics and conservative economics so it is sometimes easy to disagree with its views. But when it comes to the subject of African leaders I find myself agreeing with its scathing criticism of the 'Big Men'.

Too many of them insist on clinging to power. They adhere to high office like barnacles on a ship's hull. And like barnacles they are unthinkingly malignant by nature, damaging their reluctant hosts beyond the point of viability.

In a twisted sort of way their behaviour is understandable. It must be hard to relinquish control after a couple of decades leading a revolution and then another couple of decades leading an independent country. That sort of life is guaranteed to supersize even the most modest ego. After so many years in power, who could then vanish silently into obscurity? It is so much more human to hold on grimly to the sensation of being in absolute control of all around you.

But as understandable as the phenomenon is, that does not make it any less oppressive to the millions who must bear the consequences. They are the millions of refugees, the millions who lose lives to starvation and disease, the millions who survive ignorant of the possibilities for prosperity and happines that they have been denied.

As we enjoy our everyday lives and bemoan our petty everyday problems lets be thankful we do not number among those millions. And lets spare a thought for those who do.

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Any Colour You Want, As Long As It's White

Our dryer is on the fritz and I have discovered that shopping for a new dryer is a truly soul-killing experience. The tumble dryer is the last frontier of un-design.

You can buy the most wonderfully designed appliances for your home. Smart microwave ovens. Sleek refrigerators. Kettles with verve. You can even buy a washing machine that looks good. But a good-looking dryer? No way. You walk into a store and you get to stand in front of 7 identical white cuboid blocks of stainless steel and pick one.

You can try to ask a salesman what's the difference between them. If you're lucky you might even get a shrug of the shoulders in reply. There was one particularly god-awful machine I saw that had a shoe-rack built in. A shoe-rack! I get it, it's a clever idea for people with athletic lifestyles and smelly feet, but it's not attractive merchandizing!

How about some colors? Would it kill someone to make a black dryer? Or a silvery blue one? And how about an LCD display? Something that actually makes a dryer look different from a miniature electric crematorium? And no, I would not sue anyone if they decided to slap on a brushed metal finish.

Some chance. The choice is between Japanese machines that have no LEDs or LCDs, German machines that have no curves or elegant lines, and British ones that are as stolid and boring as you would expect. So of course that's the one we ended up getting. At least it promised nothing and delivered what it promised.

Sunday, 1 April 2007

Looking For A Ping From Centaurus A

It's fun to wonder if alien civilizations exist. It's even more fun to look for them. Thanks to a wonderful program called Seti@home, anyone with a computer and an internet connection can join the hunt.

I've been doing this for a few years now, and there are over five million others like me. We get chunks of radio signals from an observatory in Puerto Rico, run them through our computers, and send the processed data back to the University of California at Berkeley. The most promising sources of radio signals get tagged for further investigation. With all these computers hunting together, hopefully it won't be long before we find a signal from another civilization. One of the key people in the SETI@home program expects to hit paydirt within twenty years - which means that success will come well within my lifetime!

Of course, there is also the possibility that we won't find anyone. Maybe there isn't anyone else, or they're too far away, or we just don't know how to look. Luckily, when thoughts like that arise, I can always turn to kooky new-age science for reassurance. Enter Graham Hancock, who makes a convincing case for a lost civilization that centred on Antarctica, and implies that it was seeded by aliens. Or Alan Alford, who was more specific in proclaiming that humans were genetically modified clones of aliens from the as-yet-unidentified tenth planer in our solar system, Niburu. And that Niburu is not really a natural planet; it is in fact a giant spaceship.

You can imagine my delight when in 2003 scientists announced that they had in fact found a tenth planet in our solar system. Unfortunately in 2006 this planet, now named Eris, joined Pluto in getting demoted to dwarf-planet status. That is quite an insult to deliver to what is effectively our homeworld.

Be that as it may, the search goes on. If all goes well we'll start using a telescope in Australia, so we can look at the skies in the southern hemisphere. And as more people with newer computers join the program, the data gets crunched faster.

In the meantime I'll keep my eyes open for a sight of little green men, and my ears pricked to hear the magic words "Greetings, Earthling. Take me to your leader".